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Traditionally, ciphers have used information contained in secret decoding keys to code and decode messages. The process of coding plaintext to create ciphertext is called encryption and the process of decoding ciphertext to produce the plaintext is called decryption. Modern systems of electronic cryptography use digital keys (bit strings) and mathematical algorithms ( encryption algorithms ) to encrypt and decrypt information.

There are two types of encryption: symmetric key encryption and public (asymmetric) key encryption. Symmetric key and public key encryption are used, often in conjunction, to provide a variety of security functions for network and information security.

Symmetric Key Encryption

Encryption algorithms that use the same key for encrypting and for decrypting information are called symmetric-key algorithms. The symmetric key is also called a secret key because it is kept as a shared secret between the sender and receiver of information. Otherwise, the confidentiality of the encrypted information is compromised. Figure 14.1 shows basic symmetric key encryption and decryption.


Figure 14.1 Encryption and Decryption with a Symmetric Key

Symmetric key encryption is much faster than public key encryption, often by 100 to 1,000 times. Because public key encryption places a much heavier computational load on computer processors than symmetric key encryption, symmetric key technology is generally used to provide secrecy for the bulk encryption and decryption of information.

Symmetric keys are commonly used by security protocols as session keys for confidential online communications. For example, the Transport Layer Security (TLS) and Internet Protocol security (IPSec) protocols use symmetric session keys with standard encryption algorithms to encrypt and decrypt confidential communications between parties. Different session keys are used for each confidential communication session and session keys are sometimes renewed at specified intervals.

Symmetric keys also are commonly used by technologies that provide bulk encryption of persistent data, such as e-mail messages and document files. For example, Secure/Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (S/MIME) uses symmetric keys to encrypt messages for confidential mail, and Encrypting File System (EFS) uses symmetric keys to encrypt files for confidentiality.

Cryptography-based security technologies use a variety of symmetric key encryption algorithms to provide confidentiality. For more information about the specific encryption algorithms that are used by security technologies, see the applicable documentation for each technology. For more information about how the various symmetric key algorithms differ, see the cryptography literature that is referenced under "Additional Resources" at the end of this chapter.

Public Key Encryption

Encryption algorithms that use different keys for encrypting and decrypting information are most often called public-key algorithms but are sometimes also called asymmetric key algorithms . Public key encryption requires the use of both a private key (a key that is known only to its owner) and a public key (a key that is available to and known to other entities on the network). A user's public key, for example, can be published in the directory so that it is accessible to other people in the organization. The two keys are different but complementary in function. Information that is encrypted with the public key can be decrypted only with the corresponding private key of the set. Figure 14.2 shows basic encryption and decryption with asymmetric keys.


Figure 14.2 Encryption and Decryption with Asymmetric Keys

The RSA digital signature process also uses private keys to encrypt information to form digital signatures. For RSA digital signatures, only the public key can decrypt information encrypted by the corresponding private key of the set.

Today, public key encryption plays an increasingly important role in providing strong, scalable security on intranets and the Internet. Public key encryption is commonly used to perform the following functions:

  • Encrypt symmetric secret keys to protect the symmetric keys during exchange over the network or while being used, stored, or cached by operating systems.

  • Create digital signatures to provide authentication and nonrepudiation for online entities.

  • Create digital signatures to provide data integrity for electronic files and documents.